On a recent weekday lunch, Kyle Overstreet, 22, and Ryan Fox, 30, knew exactly what would sate their midday appetites: one of El Farolito’s super quesadilla suizas for Overstreet, and a carne asada torta for Fox. Within minutes, they had their greasy, delectable meals in hand.
Over at Delfina, the Danieli couple—Alexandra, 31, and Adrian, 33—were just as hungry. Sitting under a mural inside, they sipped the house red while awaiting grilled fennel and napoletana pizza.
And at Café Gratitude, Tim Chan and his sister Cynthia, who was visiting from the Midwest, decided to cleanse their bodies with a raw feast of live pizza and sprouted enchilada with cashew sour cream.
At all three places, the hungry enjoyed the quintessential Mission District dining experience.
Except for one small detail. They satisfied their yens for Mission District meals elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Fox and Overstreet found their Farolito fill at the taqueria’s East Oakland location. The Danielis’ Delfina table was inside their Pacific Heights neighborhood. And the “I Am Elated” enchilada at Café Gratitude? Served up in North Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto.
All created in the Mission District, the three restaurants have expanded their reach, spreading their local brand and the neighborhood’s culinary reputation far and wide, increasingly making the Mission an incubator for new restaurants, according to several restaurant owners.
They said the Mission’s unique confluence of affordability, accessibility and diversity has given rise to an impressive number of dining successes, arguably making the neighborhood of destination restaurants one of Northern California’s greatest test kitchens.
“In the same way that California leads the world, we could say that San Francisco leads California, and that the Mission leads San Francisco,” said Matthew Engelhart, co-owner of Café Gratitude, which he opened with his wife Terces five years ago on the corner of 20th and Harrison streets. He said his restaurant is now the only raw-food restaurant chain in the world, with six locations throughout the Bay Area.
Engelhart and others pointed to the neighborhood’s diversity in explaining the success of his eccentric restaurant. After all, no fickle crowd is willing to proclaim its enlightened state of being to order dishes such as the “I Am Devoted” coconut cream pie that finished off the Chins’ recent meal. But with the variety of Mission District diners, enough are willing to play along for a raw feast.
“We got [Salvadoran] customers, we got dumpster-diving vegans, and urban horticulturalists,” said Engelhart, speaking on the phone from his Be Love Farm in Vacaville, where he was harvesting carrots and leeks for the restaurants.
“At the time we opened [our restaurant], I would say the Mission was the vegan capital of the world,” said Engelhart, offering as an example the vegan restaurant Herbivore on Valencia—another local eatery that has spawned outposts.
Known for its quirky, techie and Mexican crowd, the Mission and its 24th Street taqueria artery has also been proclaimed the “burrito capital of the world.”
The combination of those two demographics—Latino and hipster—are what created the perfect location for brothers Miguel and Victor Escobedo to open their Papalote Mexican Grill in 1999. What the Mexico City natives had in mind was a traditional taqueria friendly to the vegan and health-conscious crowd. “It was natural to do a place in the Mission,” Miguel said. “It’s such an active and diverse neighborhood where you can get every demographic and expose them to what you do.”
Figures from the 2000 Census paint a comprehensive picture of the diversity the Escobedos witness inside their 24th Street storefont. The Mission has no majority ethnicity. Just under half the residents are Latino, about one-third are white, and 11 percent are Asian.
And while the median household income is below San Francisco’s as a whole, Mission residents tend to dine out more often, according to Anjan Mitra, who co-owns Dosa on Valencia Street and now Dosa on Fillmore with his wife Emily.
“People don’t spend as much,” Mitra said of his Mission clientele. Yet whereas Fillmore residents dine out for special occasions, “in the Mission, it’s like, I need to eat, so I go out.” That observation may reflect the Mission’s high number of apartment dwellers—82% compared to 65% for the city as a whole.
The flagship Papalote on 24th Street attracts those who flock to the Mission just for its renowned burritos, vegans who can be confident their beans are lard-free, and homesick Mexicans who prefer the healthier ingredients of the Papalote menu.
The niche proved a success. With a second restaurant now by the panhandle, and a recent 10-year anniversary celebration, Miguel says they are eyeing the East Bay for a third location.
LOCATION IS EVERYTHING
The Mitras discovered another winning recipe in contemporary South Indian cuisine with the 2005 opening of Dosa. Anjan Mitra said the couple searched for about six months for a place, and the Mission fit all the right criteria. “We wanted to be a San Francisco restaurant,” he said, “and the Mission just has a very quintessential San Francisco feel to it.”
A great location like Dosa on 21st and Valencia can certainly help a restaurant. But, Mitra adds, “If you have a good restaurant, you’ll get noticed anywhere you go.”
That may be true, said Charles Phan, whose upscale Vietnamese cuisine at Slanted Door, which first opened in 1995, attracted attention from no less than the visiting Clinton White House. But Phan added a caveat: Attracting attention takes time. “You can’t just stand around waiting to get noticed.”
In the cutthroat restaurant industry, if you don’t make it on the neighborhood crowd in the first few years, you won’t survive long enough to attract a larger following. “So you need the sustainability from the local business,” Phan said. “That’s your bread and butter.”
For him, it wasn’t just Mission District denizens, but the neighborhood’s nightlife that sustained his restaurant through its initial years. The original Slanted Door, on Valencia by 17th Street, was a hop and a skip from the Elbo Room and other bars and lounges, meaning a pivotal late turn for the restaurant. “We’d still get a line of people waiting to get in at 9:30 [p.m.]. You’re not going to get a line at the Ferry Building at 9:30,” Phan said, referring to Slanted Door’s current larger location.
“Location’s everything,” he added. And it’s one reason he’s held onto his Valencia storefront and plans to open another restaurant there in the future.
THE RIGHT PRICE FOR A RISK
For Phan, a Mission High graduate and longtime Mission resident, the decision to open his first restaurant in his neighborhood was an easy one. For many others, the Mission’s affordable rent is the deal sealer.
Anjan and Emily Mitra looked all over San Francisco to find the right spot for Dosa. “We had to do something on a shoestring budget,” Anjan said, and while “the Mission is becoming a hot neighborhood, [it's] still cheaper than the Western Addition or Pacific Heights.”
As Mission Loc@l reported in March, commercial rent along the Mission’s Valencia Street corridor ranges from $2 to $4 per square foot, compared to $4 to $6 in the neighboring Castro, or $3 to $5 in Hayes Valley. The lower rate can be especially attractive to entrepreneurs taking a risk with an edgy concept, as in the Escobedos’ vegan-friendly taqueria, the Mitras’ contemporary Indian, or the Engelharts’ new-agey raw cafe.
Ben Doren and his two business partners also took a gamble when they opened Levende Lounge on Mission and Duboce streets almost five years ago. Back then, the concept of a restaurant-lounge was relatively new, and somewhat confusing to their initial customers, Doren said.
They’d been looking for a space for about six months when they came across the large stand-alone location of the former Butterfly restaurant for sale. “What we were looking at comparably in the area south of Market would’ve been in a much smaller, much more run-down sort of space,” Doren said.
Sitting at a sidewalk table of the restaurant’s second location, called Levende East, in Old Oakland, Doren pointed out one factor behind the neighborhood’s cheaper price tag. “The Mission is definitely edgy and hip and cool. But at times it can be sketchy and dangerous.”
Located next to the freeway, Levende is off the beaten track of the neighborhood’s nightlife corridors. “There [aren't] a whole lot of businesses around us,” Doren said, so he recommends older patrons not take public transit at night.
He also told the story of a break-in last month. “Somebody smashed a window, broke in about four in the morning.” After an unsuccessful attempt to break open the cash register, the thief took it, along with high-end tequila and cognac. Doren said that happens a handful of times each year.
On the other hand, there’s an upside to Levende’s proximity to the freeway. It attracts diners from all over the region, he said. Besides, “Sometimes people like to have a little element of danger when they go out,” he added, identifying one of the Mission’s perplexing trademarks. “That’s why there’s a lot of people who won’t go to, say, the Marina on a Friday or Saturday night. They want something edgier, something a little more dangerous.”
WHO NEEDS ANALYSIS—FIND A SIGN FROM GOD
But just as a cook can follow her grandma’s recipes but never make the dishes quite like she did, restaurant owners said there is an intangible ingredient—some sort of magic—that can make a restaurant thrive. The Mission, they said, seems to have it.
Perhaps that’s what led the Engelharts, who “live our life from inner guidance,” as Matthew said, to the inaugural location of Café Gratitude.
Eschewing long searches or studies to find the right location, the couple decided that “when God shows us a sign, we’ll open a restaurant,” Engelhart recalled. The morning after discussing this philosophy with a friend on whom they were testing their raw recipes, the couple was driving from the Alemany farmers’ market to the Ferry Building market, when they saw The Sign.
It said “restaurant available” and it hung from the window of a storefront at 20th and Harrison. “We never gave a second thought to whether it was a good neighborhood or not,” said Engelhart, who lived in Bernal Heights at the time. “In fact, it wasn’t a good area. There was no walking traffic, it was gang-y.”
But like the name of the superfood elixir on his menu, he declared that “I am committed.” That was five years and six restaurants ago. The decision proved, well, enlightened.